Theme Weaving – Speaker Tips from Politicians

It’s political convention time in America. The horse race is on. The bets are rolling in. Every word counts. We are witnessing the equivalent of the Academy Awards contest for the best speech. “And the Ronnie goes to…” The two dominant American political parties are having their nominating conventions in Boston and New York. Political speeches are everywhere.

Politicians Know Speeches

If you listen to the main political keynote speeches, you will hear two techniques being utilized extensively: The Phrase That Pays and Theme Weaving. A Phrase That Pays is a short phrase such as Walk Your Talk or Cast Your Ballot that calls the listener to action. It is short and sweet, musical and rhythmic and generally begins with a verb or action word. There is generally one predominant Phrase That Pays in an important speech. Theme Weaving is the repetition of a theme that is woven throughout the speech to emphasize the theme or core message of the speech. When the stakes are high, a speaker needs to ensure that his or her audience takes home the message that they intend to convey. Branding an idea, concept or phrase into the listener’s mind is accomplished by using a Phrase That Pays and then weaving it throughout the speech. Right now, both political parties are staking their future on their ability to weave a theme better than the other guy. The best speechwriters in the country are teaching valuable lessons in message branding by using theme weaving with a Phrase That Pays. Watch, listen and learn. Theme Weaving with a Phrase That Pays works for the big dogs in politics and it works for you and me, as well. It doesn’t matter to whom you are speaking or what topic you are speaking about, theme weaving using a Phrase That Pays is advanced adult learning technology at work. (See Never Be Boring Again, Chapter 12)


We all know that repetition aids retention. Many of us know the Pledge of Allegiance simply because we repeated every day in school. Many of us learned the alphabet by singing it over and over again with a simple tune. To this day, you probably recite the alphabet using the tune you learned as a child. We seldom learn something the first time. It takes many impressions, experiences (or mistakes!) to fully integrate a lesson. As a speaker you will use thousands of words in the course of a speech. The challenge is to get your audience to remember something that you said. If they can’t remember and retain what you said, you were merely talking up wind in a hurricane to a deaf man walking the other direction. They heard it but they didn’t learn it. The solution, weave the theme with a Phrase That Pays. To brand your core message into your listener’s brain, you must start planning your speech with the core message in mind. Before you write a single word, answer this question, “What do I want my audience to think or do?” Don’t worry about coming up with the main thought, concept or action immediately. Brainstorm. Mind map. Write all of your ideas down and then rank them by priority from high to low. Do this alone or better yet, form a team. If you’re in politics, create a task force! Then get a committee to investigate the task force. Create a commission to review the results of the committee! Or, if you’re like me, run your ideas by your wife, your kids, or the dog!

Get the Phrase

Finally, choose one core message and transform it into a Phrase That Pays/call to action. Once you have your Phrase That Pays, build your speech making sure to lead all sub-points back to it. Weave the theme. As I listened to Bill Clinton’s speech on the opening night of the Democratic Convention, he wove the phrase, “send me,” throughout the speech. It was used to sell the idea that John Kerry has chosen, over the course of his life, to volunteer for the hard duty. “Send me,” represented an attitude of service. After he’d first introduced it, Mr. Clinton repeated this phrase approximately every 90 seconds. He’d describe a situation in which John Kerry had done something ethical, moral or brave. Then Mr. Clinton would end the example by saying something like, “When no one else was willing to step up to the plate, John Kerry said, “Send Me.” By the third time he said it, Mr. Clinton had created a cadence that orchestrated the audience into saying the phrase in unison with him.

By the time you read this, the Democratic Convention will be over. In August you will hear the same techniques repeated at the Republican Convention. Regardless of where you live on the planet, if you pay attention and study the best speakers, in and out of politics, you will begin to recognize theme weaving with a Phrase That Pays. You will hear it time and again because it works. Some listeners may feel as if they are being talked down to, but as a speaker you must understand the principle that is at work. Repetition aids retention. When you weave the theme, it clarifies and simplifies your message. It makes you focus on one clear point and allows your audience to focus as well. Bad speeches are notable for their lack of clarity and focus. The speaker rambles, leading their listener on a wild goose chase. The only problem is, there’s no goose. This makes audience members mad. They show their displeasure by tuning out. The speaker wastes everyone’s time and leaves the podium less credible than when they approached it. Are the stakes high when you give a speech or presentation? Is your credibility and professional image important to you? Would you like to blow people away when you speak rather than giving them another boring recitation of facts? Then take a hint from the professionals. Don’t give a speech. Craft a presentation. Don’t tell people what you want them to hear. Invite them into an experience. Don’t wait until the last minute. Begin preparation three weeks out.

Create a theme and then weave the theme. I was recently brought in to work with a corporate client on an important speech. They hired me to take the facts, data and information which needed to be included in the speech and weave them into a narrative, a story. There were eight people on the team and me. For three days, we sat around a huge conference table in the belly of a city-block-long building. Everyone brainstormed ideas. We scribbled on huge easel boards and drew diagrams on chalkboards. We wrestled with what needed to be in the speech and what had to be cut. It was fun. And productive. In the end, we created a magical script for a wonderful speech. The story that held it all together included their facts and data, but it also contained humanity and humor. We chose a phrase that pays and wove it into the speech. The phrase was repeated throughout. They realized up front that without a story, the speech would be boring. They also knew the stakes were too high to let that happen. The Fortune 100 corporation that hired me was willing to dedicate time, money and people to craft what they deemed to be a “turning point” speech. How about you? Are you ready to take speaking seriously and reap the harvest of your brilliance? Can you handle the adulation? Are you ready for a raise? Dedicate time. Find a Phrase That Pays. Weave the theme!


Copyright 2005 by Doug Stevenson. Reprinted with permission. Doug Stevenson is the creator of the Story Theater Method. He is an author, keynote speaker, and workshop leader. Reach Doug at or 800.573.6196